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Inland called key to state’s future

Times Staff Writer

California’s vast inland valleys, from Redding to Riverside, remain the fastest growing regions in the state but already face serious economic and environmental challenges that could determine the state’s future, according to a study released Tuesday.

Developing an economy that can sustain this rapid population growth with well-paying jobs is the challenge facing these communities and will determine whether California will continue to prosper, according to the report by the Brookings Institution.

Although often maligned as poor, ugly and polluted, the inland area, spanning 75,000 square miles, is the key to California’s future. One in three Californians calls it home. Four of the nation’s 10 fastest-growing cities -- Riverside, Bakersfield, Sacramento and San Bernardino -- are there.

High-priced real estate forced many families to flee coastal urban areas and pursue their dreams inland during the past decade. Inland California “represents not so much a break with the California dream, but its new homeland, the state of opportunity for a new generation,” the study said.

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Sustaining the dream without ruining the environment or agriculture will determine if California remains competitive and a beacon for opportunity in the 21st century, experts say. The San Joaquin Valley already rivals Los Angeles for some of the smoggiest air in the country.

“When you get that many people and that much economic power inland, you better take a look at it and understand it because that’s where the future of the state is,” said John Husing, president of Redlands-based Economics & Politics Inc., an economic research firm unconnected with the study.

The report paints a portrait of a region at the crossroads. People move inland largely to find affordable housing in the Inland Empire, Central Valley and Sierra foothills.

The population in those regions has increased 14% between 2000 and 2005, four times the rate of the rest of the state, the study said.

But the inland region’s rapid growth brings serious challenges.

More than half the new arrivals are Latino, and many new residents are poor and significantly less educated than in the Los Angeles region or the Bay Area.

They need good jobs, but employers aren’t likely to relocate until there’s a capable, high-skilled workforce in place. Many companies are more likely to relocate to Reno, Las Vegas or Phoenix than to inland California, the study said.

“When we think of the future of California, most people think about what happens in Silicon Valley or Hollywood. But for most Californians, the issue is what happens in the middle-class areas,” said Joel Kotkin, an author of the study. “Will they be the new vital centers for California’s middle class or will they become crabgrass slums with high unemployment and poor living conditions?”

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The study recommends three approaches to help transform inland boomtowns into more livable and economically sustainable cities:

* Create more amenities that appeal to families, skilled labor and industries, including more open space and parks, better entertainment and retail centers and improved infrastructure.

* Create upward mobility for residents by offering more work-force training and better schools.

* Build on optimism to create political consensus for leadership and positive change. The study notes that, despite the region’s maligned reputation, 75% of Central Valley adults rated their community as good or excellent -- providing a basis for political will.

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“It’s up to them whether the area continues to perform to the low expectations as viewed by many commentators or begins to forge a future that will preserve the middle-class ‘California dream’ for at least another generation,” the study said.

William Frey of the Brookings Institution and Kotkin, experts in demographics and urban development, wrote the 20-page paper.

The Brookings Institution is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

gary.polakovic@latimes.com

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